How do you empirically defend Human Rights?

I was driving to work this morning, listening to Tim Keller speak on the topic “The Closing of the Modern Mind”, on The Veritas Forum Podcast at New York University (3 March 2018). Yesterday, at ACU, I was teaching Catholic Social Thought to first year students, and explaining the idea of the innate dignity of every human being. I had to point out that this Judeo-Christian idea was based in the belief that a divine, personal Creator had made human beings in his own image. If you are not religious, I suggested, you might want to ask yourself why you believe that human beings have equal dignity, and why they are worth more than (for eg.) rats.

So I had to pull over and stop and listen when I heard Tim Keller ask the question: ‘Why should we believe in Human Rights?’. And I spent the next half hour transcribing what he said. I could just have bought the book he was quoting from (Alan Dershowitz (2002). Shouting fire : civil liberties in a turbulent age. Boston : Little, Brown & Co.]  but according to Amazon that costs over $100 and is only available in hardback. So here is the transcript of Keller summarising Dershowitz. It makes astonishing and thought provoking reading.

“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief (1877)

His point was that you should never believe anything unless you have empirical evidence for it. And the trouble with religion is that as soon as you make religious claims, there’s no way to prove those things, so they’re best kept out of the public square.

There is probably not an epistemology course in the country [the U.S.] taught by any philosophy professor in any accredited university that would actually give you that thing to read and say “That’s my view”, because it’s pretty widely understood now that most of the things we hold dear – most the things we believe, most of the things that we believe that mean the most to us – could not be empirically proven.

I’ll give you one example: Human Rights.

Alan Dershowitz in his book “Shouting fire” asks this question: What if you come to a country which says ‘Why should we believe in Human Rights?’ And if you don’t just want to say ‘because I feel Human Rights are good things’, if you want to say something more powerful than that, what do you say?

Well, there are only four things to say.

One is you can do what Martin Luther King said, which is all human beings have inherent equal human dignity because they are made in the image of God. Now, Dershowitz says that for him, he is an atheist, so he just can’t go there, so he can’t say that.

He says the second thing you’d say is, well, Human Rights are natural, you can say you see them in nature. He says the problem with that is if you actually look at nature it is kind of violent. The strong eat the weak and that kind of thing. So it’s a little hard to get the idea of inherent dignity of every human being from nature.

He says the third thing you could say is that we create Human Rights, we just get together and we legislate them. He says the problem with that is if Human Rights are the creation of the majority, then they’re useless, because the whole point of a Human Right is to take the right of a minority and put it in the face of the majority and say ‘You have to honour rights of my people’ or ‘my client’. If they are created then they can be uncreated, and that means they’re useless.

So he says, what is it and what do you say?

Here’s what you have to say: We just know they’re there. Human Rights are discovered, not created. They have to be there otherwise they are useless. Why are they there (and they are)? We don’t know, but they are.

And when Dershowitz says ‘I know that if somebody comes to me and says ‘That is just what you white, western, individualistic people say’, well, that’s a problem, but I just know that this isn’t something from my culture, they [Human Rights] are just there. And then he says, ultimately, most of the human race now believes that they are there and that’s why we know they are there.

But the real problem, of course, is as he said: Is it is really true that what the majority of human beings think is right is necessarily right? No!

So in the end, can he prove Human Rights? Can you empirically prove them?

No. It’s a faith leap. It is a leap of faith. It is an assumption. There’s as much evidence for human rights as there is for God. (In fact, I think there is probably more evidence for God than for Human Rights.) But that’s another lecture.

The point of the matter is that they are both non-provable empirically, and they’re not self evident and therefore we are ALL bringing non-provable beliefs – more intuitions and convictions – into the Public Square, and we ought to let them come and let everyone talk about it.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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